Hollies – 50 at Fifty (review)

The Hollies – 50 at Fifty (Parlophone) review

Better than the Beatles?  At harmony, they were

Because they tackled mostly lighter material, the Hollies are rarely mentioned in the same breath with their British contemporaries like the Beatles & the Stones.  Yet, the Hollies released an incredible amount of great material, as a brand-new box set, 50 at Fifty, proves.

The three-CD set kicks off with the band’s very first single, “(Ain’t That) Just Like Me,” which hit the Top 30 in the UK in 1963.  That single sounds very much like the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” as they hadn’t quite developed their own unique style.  Their fourth single, “Just One Look,” a revamp of the Doris Troy classic, showcases the soaring, multi-layered harmonies that would become the band’s trademark (surprisingly, it was not a hit in the US).  Other UK hits like the pounding “Here I Go Again,” or the dark, cascading “We’re Through,” may not be familiar to US listeners, but are fantastic nonetheless.

The jangly “Look Through Any Window” was the band’s first US Top 40 hit, while their cover of the Beatles’ album track “If I Needed Someone” has better harmonies than the Fab Four original.  Their urgent cover of Evie Sands’ “I Can’t Let Go” should’ve been a bigger hit.

Finally the US public started paying attention with the effervescent “Bus Stop,” written by future 10cc member Graham Gouldman.  Led by a strumming 12-string, acoustic guitar, the song still sounds fresh today.  As the Sixties wore on, most bands began experimenting with deeper lyrics and psychedelic sounds, yet the Hollies chose to stick to their pop roots with carnivalesque songs like “Stop Stop Stop,” and “On a Carousel.”  Ironically, one of their most psychedelic songs, “Dear Eloise,” is not included on this set, as it was not released as a single in the UK.  The too-sugary for 1968 “Jennifer Eccles” singled the end of the original lineup of the band, with vocalist Graham Nash exiting, replaced by Terry Sylvester.

Yet, surprisingly the band bounced back, with the worldwide smash ballad, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” which leads off disc two.   There are some surprises here, like the folky “Gasoline Alley Bred,” and the surprisingly heavy “Hey Willy.”  The CCR-inspired “Long Cool Woman” is a staple on US rock radio to this day, yet was not a big hit in their native UK.  Also absent is the followup single, “Long Dark Road,” which was not released as a single in England.  “The Air That I Breathe” was their final big hit, and it sounds fantastic in remastered form.  “I’m Down” and “Lonely Hobo Lullaby” are two examples of songs that were not hits, but featured great singing.

The Hollies tried to take a Bruce Springsteen composition, “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” and turn it into a hit.  It didn’t work, but another British Invasion band, Manfred Mann would take the Boss’ “Blinded By the Light” the following year and take it to #1.  “Daddy Don’t Mind” is a surprisingly good latter-day rocker.

Their cover of the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love” was an unlikely hit off their reunion album from 1983, and it actually holds together because of the fantastic harmonies. A newer, live version of “On a Carousel” actually takes the arrangement from the North Carolina band Glass Moon’s 1982 cover.   The set does contain a brand new song, the sweeping “Skylarks.”  Yet, since it doesn’t contain either original vocalist Graham Nash or Allan Clarke, it has little in common with the other songs on the album.

50 at Fifty does an excellent job of summing up the Hollies’ long career.  No matter what era, one thing remains constant – fantastic harmonies.  —Tony Peters